New Perspective On Iconic Subjects

How to move beyond the "stock" shot for better photos of popular subjects
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Shooting The Bean at twilight and getting the Chicago skyline in its reflection makes for a colorful rendition of the icon—the two girls posing in front give it a sense of scale.

Travel photographers working in tourist destinations face a dilemma: the iconic view, skyline or structure of a place often is so well known and photographed that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything new. But you can’t ignore the icon either—people want to see an angle on Big Ben in a London story, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Close-up of part of the icon with the skyline reflected.

I faced this dilemma for the umpteenth time on a recent city story assignment in Chicago. True, the huge reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor—located in downtown Millennium Park and called Cloud Gate, but better known as “The Bean”—is younger and not quite as done to death as many well-known landmarks, but it’s quickly becoming the signature shot of Chicago. I had to give it my best shot while I was there for my coverage.

Now, if you’re blessed with an unlimited budget, unbelievable luck or a boundless imagination, maybe you can be the one-in-a-million shooter to come up with something “fresh.” Personally, I’d love to hire a big cherry picker and shoot straight down on The Bean with a wide-angle lens. But the equipment rental and permit problems would make that far too expensive a proposition for me or any of my current clients. I also wouldn’t mind being the guy lucky enough to shoot The Bean during a special lighting occurrence, with a rainbow soaring over it or a spectacular sunset behind it. Or, I’d love to be gifted with a flash of inspiration or an eye so original that I could come up with something that the legions of shooters before me overlooked. Alas, barring divine intervention, that’s not in my cards either.

A midday view showing the icon in its surroundings.

So what do I do when faced with such an icon? I give it the 360-degree treatment, which is to say, I simply work it to death! That’s right, when talent leaves you short, your budget is limited and luck is in short supply, there’s always hard work and shoe leather.

Following is my checklist for working an icon. Try to apply it the next time you’re facing a well-known symbol to see if you can spruce up the freshness of your photographs.

Time Of Day. Never be satisfied with shooting your icon once. Most have placement that favors morning, say, over afternoon, but even if you’ve done it once in the “right” light, go back at least twice.

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The Bean is so highly reflective that there only are several times of day to shoot, but I found that twilight, that 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, gave me my most interesting results, and the rich blue of the sky (that makes up so much of any shot of the round, highly polished structure) looked better than the daylight sky. The warm lights of the skyline reflected in that surface also looked good.

Weather Conditions. If you happen to be around when there’s an unusual weather condition, say, fog, a driving snowstorm, pouring rain or howling wind, don’t miss going out to shoot your icon in these special circumstances. That’s why, when I hear the weather might be turning bad, I hope it turns really bad because those extreme conditions provide a rare view of your icon. Mildly bad weather, on the other hand, a little haze or a nondescript sky, usually won’t give you the drama you need to make a striking shot.

Just Shoot A Part Of The Icon. Some icons are so, well, iconic that all you need is a part of them for your viewer to infer the whole. So, if you can find a great little café scene with one tower of Tower Bridge soaring in the background, you’ve placed your shot in London. In the case of The Bean, I came in close with a tele-zoom and shot the reflection of the Chicago skyline in just a part of the sculpture’s shiny surface.

Using the icon as a backdrop for prom kids having fun.

Juxtapose An Action In Front Of The Icon. Another way to get a new look at an icon is to use it as a background for some other, perhaps more common activity. A lot of photographers, for instance, shoot the skateboarders on La Place de l’Etoile with the Eiffel Tower behind them to give that Parisian icon a fresh look and a sense of moment.

I was in Chicago in May, prom season, and I noticed a lot of gussied-up high-school kids in tuxes and gowns coming down in the evening to shoot pictures of each other in front of The Bean. So, of course, I did the same thing, often hanging back with a long lens so all I’d see were the kids with this huge mirror surface reflecting the skyline behind them. It was fun to see how creatively these kids would pose and horse around in front of this giant mirror.

Use Extreme Optics. If you own a really long tele or an extreme wide-angle or fisheye, try using it on your icon. The extreme rendition of perspective with these lenses can help you come up with fresh angles and juxtapositions.

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Super close-up of the underside of The Bean
using a fisheye lens.

When National Geographic did its special issue on France, staff photographer James Stanfield used a 400mm lens to shoot the Eiffel Tower. What he created was an extremely compressed view of lanes and lanes of traffic, with their taillights glowing, pouring underneath the lower sections of the Tower legs. You never saw more of the Tower than the very bottoms of the leg, but it dominated the scene the way no overall shot could.

I took along my 10.5mm fisheye to Chicago and used it extensively right up next to and even inside The Bean. The fisheye’s unique curvature created a lot of interesting perspectives, and the shot looking straight up inside created a multifaceted look with a variety of planes that made it look like a shot from a psychedelic ’60s movie.

Play Peekaboo! This is a related technique to showing just a part of the icon. The “peekaboo” approach (for lack of a better descriptive term) involves seeing how many ways you can work the icon into the background of other pictures. In the case of The Bean, which is relatively small and low compared to other city icons, it was more or less impossible for me to do this.

But a few years ago, I shot a city story on Toronto for National Geographic Traveler. Of course, that city’s icon is the very tall, and hence ubiquitous, CN Tower. At first, it started showing up by accident in the backgrounds of street scenes, park scenics and café shots, and it would immediately place the shot in Toronto. After a while, I made a little game of seeing how many ways I could work that distinctive tower silhouette into the background of more generic shopping and street-scene shots to give it the Toronto treatment.

Another twilight beauty shot of The Bean in its surroundings.

Look For Reflections, Miniatures And Souvenirs. Another way to photograph your icon is to look for its reflection in surrounding windows, building facades and even rain puddles or fountains. The reflection often has an impressionistic quality that puts that different spin on the shot.

Another clever approach is to shoot displays of souvenirs, usually miniature versions, of the icon. I’ve seen very clever shots of stacks of the Arc de Triomphe on souvenir tables on the Champs Élysées with the real structure in the background. Then there’s the classic shot of a cute little tourist child wearing a big Nerf version of the crown of the Statue of Liberty, emulating the famous stance in front of the real deal. Or somebody holding a postcard of a famous skyline view in front of the camera with the actual view in the background—you get the picture.

Using this humorous approach, or any of these other tips, can save your icon shot from the purgatory of being a total cliché. So the next time you face one of these icons, give it the 360-degree shoe-leather treatment, and who knows, in the midst of all your hard work, you may just uncover an original masterpiece!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.